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Construction Still Low on High Tech

FRIDAY, MARCH 22, 2013

By Robert Ikenberry

Construction is one of the last industries to embrace technology—or so it seems. If so, why? And is it time for a change?

I've been in construction for a long time. I’m also a longtime technology user.  So, when the new millennium arrived in 2000, I was all set for my industry to make a major leap.

Reality Check

I could see it: Technology (and specifically, “project collaboration”) was going to be adopted in a big way. It would be revolutionary.

Specs, drawings, letters, purchase orders, contracts, everything would be electronic, paperless, more efficient, more accurate, searchable, transparent and wonderful.

Except, it didn't happen.

Users were few, and the up-and-coming project collaboration companies (like BlueLine On-Line and Buzzsaw) crashed and burned with the rest of the dot .com bust.

Starting Over

Today, there's promise again. Many projects are adopting high-tech communications.

That movement is probably driven by individuals seeing how much they can get done with their own smart phones and tablets and pushing their companies to let them use them at work.

As an industry, however, construction (especially industrial painting) remains a late adopter of technology. There are some good reasons for this—and some reasons that may not be so good anymore.

Risky Business

First, construction has big risks. If your website goes down, people are inconvenienced. If your building goes down, the consequences are much worse.

Failures of new building materials and innovative designs have nurtured a conservative mindset in construction that is frankly well-founded. This is a good reason, but it is probably holding back some positive advances.

Second, construction takes a big investment—in expertise, as well as equipment. This barrier has limited the ability of college kids to invent the Next Big Thing in their garage, at least for building bridges or other heavy construction.

 Sundt Construction Inc. via Autodesk
 Sundt Construction Inc. via Autodesk
Building Information Modeling software can enhance preconstruction planning by showing, for example, a network of post-tension tendons in 3D. So why has BIM gone AWOL?

Big investments in heavy equipment also tend to make companies hesitate to adopt anything that will make their current equipment obsolete.

Besides, even if game-changing technology were to emerge from someone’s garage, it would be hard to get building codes and State DOTs to adopt it.

These are examples of reasonable conservatism. 

10,000 Hours

Expertise, too, is necessarily slow to develop.  Like most crafts of the Middle Ages, construction developed on an apprentice/master model.

While cobblers, blacksmiths and watchmakers have been replaced by overseas shoe manufacturers, steel fabricators and mass-produced digital timepieces, it’s hard to outsource a fixed-location construction project.

Meanwhile, the classic model of apprenticeship, with its years-long journey toward true mastery, may not be off the mark.

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell postulates that it takes 10,000 hours for someone—even one with talent and/or brains—to attain what looks like “overnight” success.  From the Beatles to Bill Gates, Gladwell shows that dazzling success stories may be grounded in luck, circumstance and aptitude, but they are built over at least 10,000 hours of practice.

That’s about the same time that apprenticeship programs historically required to become a journeyman: five years at 2,000 hours a year.

Generation Gap

Speaking of young apprentices and old masters, generational differences may also be limiting technology’s spread in construction.

Owners and decision makers tend to be older workers who have come up through the ranks.  They are more comfortable with traditional methods and have lived through more mistakes (and their consequences).

Younger workers, who are more drawn to technology, typically lack the authority to make changes and the perspective of experience. In implementing new technology, they may make mistakes that cause problems.
There are good reasons not to take advantage of the growing field of construction technologies. There are also not-so-good reasons.

Finally, construction has fewer economies of scale than other industries. Just because your last tank painting job went really well doesn’t mean you can do the next 100 equally profitably.  Conditions, locations, owners and staff all change. And, unfortunately, you can’t clone your supervisors.

Fork in the Road

So, how can our industry move forward with so many reasons not to do so? My advice:

1. Recognize construction’s built-in resistance to new technologies. When a new technology is presented, pause and think. Is your “no” more automatic than reasoned? Give each new product or technique a thorough analysis. Any one might be the next new thing that will give you a real competitive advantage.

2. Maintain your conservatism where it counts.  Anything that impacts your finished product, whether a steel bridge or the paint applied to it, has to be efficient and effective. Cutting corners or taking risks on new products and methods can be a disaster. And many new things just don’t work in the field like they did in the lab.

So what’s your take?  Is construction leading or trailing on this score? Which way are you headed?


Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.



Tagged categories: Bridges; Program/Project Management; Bidding; Business matters; Construction; Contracts; Industrial Contractors; Painting Contractors; Specifiers

Comment from Ross Boyd, (3/25/2013, 12:09 PM)

Great blog post Robert and extremely prudent. Hi-Tech is beginning to be used in the Industrial Painting world and will continue to grow over the next decade. In construction and industrial painting in particular there are dozens of different quality control reports that are comprised of the essentially same information. Until owners, spec writers and inspectors agree that a data point is a data point there will be delay in getting these tremendous cost saving tools into the field. SSPC should push to develop an industry accepted digital data standard for "the college kids in the garage" to work from. Regardless of age it is time for our leaders to recognize the industry is headed into the digital age and take the lead. The shift towards contractor based QC has forced the industry towards a path of transparency and partnership. This is difficult using traditional documentation and disclosure methods. The industrial painting (construction) industry is trailing currently but our leadership has the ability to change this. Great article!

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